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Remarks by Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation At the 2020 Group of Seven (G7) Speakers’ Meeting “Guaranteeing a Sustainable and Equitable Global Covid-19 Recovery”

As Prepared For Delivery on Saturday, September 12, 2020

Madam Speaker; honorable Heads of Parliament: thank you for your leadership and for inviting me here today. Secretary Albright and Dr. Kim – not to mention Bono – are a tough act to follow. But let me start by sharing the story of Ruby Kumari, a woman I had the privilege of meeting in India last year.

This spring, her microenterprise, a sewing school in poverty-stricken rural Bihar, was shuttered by Covid lockdowns. But she was able to pivot to sew more than 100,000 masks and contribute to the pandemic response. In the wake of her husband’s recent death, it gave her both purpose and a pathway to prosperity. What made this possible was a solar mini-grid we helped build that empowered her to rise out of poverty. Today, as momentum builds for an inclusive, equitable, climate-smart global recovery, we believe these technologies hold the potential to transform the lives of as many as 1 billion people currently left behind and locked out of the modern economy.

As you know, this pandemic has exposed and accelerated unprecedented inequalities around the world. On almost every continent, countries with rampant inequality – including the United States, Brazil, India, and South Africa – have been hit the hardest. Meanwhile, America’s 600-plus billionaires saw their combined wealth grow by more than half a trillion dollars – earning 20 percent, as 20 percent of U.S. workers lost their jobs. Worldwide, Covid-19 is pushing at least 425 million people deeper beneath an expanded poverty line of $5-a-day.

We’re here to discuss an equitable, sustainable global recovery – a recovery that includes everyone and avoids a climate disaster, and that does more for communities disproportionately harmed by this crisis. But for equity to really drive this recovery, it must correct historic injustices that made some people more vulnerable than others.

Because racial minorities in America are three-to-five times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19, and indigenous peoples in Brazil have been 50 percent more likely to die from Covid-19 – we believe an equitable recovery must address systemic racism and oppression.

And because those in poverty have suffered the most in this pandemic – losing the most jobs, the most wages, even the most loved ones, from rural villages in India to urban slums in Africa – we believe an equitable recovery has to lift up the world’s bottom billion with dignity, so everyone can meet their basic needs.

An equitable recovery starts with ensuring that all aspects of the health response – from testing and tracing, to wraparound support services, to the distribution of vaccines and therapeutics – go to the highest-risk communities first.

But over the long term, the really big opportunity is a massive, public-private investment in modern infrastructure that unlocks inclusive growth for everyone, and especially those left behind.

We know from this crisis what industrial economies need: fast, ubiquitous broadband and wireless; smart logistics powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning; and seamless supply chains that can adapt to crises in real-time.

Foundational to all of that, is electricity. Without it, you’re powerless in today’s global economy. And emerging economies need it the most.

If you were surprised this year that millions of people in our countries still don’t have reliable high-speed internet, it will shock you how much of humanity is still living in the dark without access to electricity: more than 800 million people, including half of sub-Saharan Africa. And this is more than 130 years since G7 economies got our first jolts of electricity.

For another 1.2 billion people, what little power they have isn’t reliable enough to run a business. Across the world’s 47 least developed countries, the average person uses barely enough electricity to power two lightbulbs for six hours a day, and charge a mobile phone. This is one of the greatest divides between industrial and emerging economies, and it’s unconscionable.

You might think we can’t solve this problem without accelerating climate change. Five or 10 years ago, you’d be right. But thanks to pioneering breakthroughs in distributed renewable energy technologies, we now know it’s possible to end energy poverty in 10 years, without causing a climate disaster. The only way to succeed at scale, is through public-sector leadership and financing – the same way we powered up our own countries, and the same way energy infrastructure investments helped power economic recoveries after the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

Today, meeting the basic needs of 800 million people living without electricity will require doubling global investments in distributed renewable energy, from $11 billion to $22 billion per year. Over a decade, that adds up to less than 2 percent of the $6.5 trillion that G7 members pledged this year to counteract the pandemic’s social and economic, and financial consequences.

A sustainable and equitable future has to be an electrical future, but it also has to be a future we power together. If anyone tries to work alone, or to use the recovery as a geopolitical bargaining chip, it will only be a road to nowhere.

We each have a choice to make when it comes to the global recovery. And the expected results could not be more different.

If we do nothing, decades of progress will be erased. Half a billion people will sink deeper into poverty. While a shrinking handful will see their wealth grow to astonishing highs, the rest of humanity will fall further behind.

But if we invest in a truly equitable recovery, where no one is left behind – a recovery that aims to reverse centuries of injustice, and prioritizes lifting up the world’s bottom billion – we can build a future brighter than we ever imagined.

Tens of thousands more businesses will be thriving and growing local economies – with fewer carbon emissions.

Tens of millions more girls will be learning in school and reaching their full potential – with fewer threats to their safety and well-being.

And hundreds of millions more mothers and fathers will have jobs that can jumpstart their journeys out of poverty and give their families hope for the future.

As G7 heads of parliament, you have real power to influence which path we choose. Right now many people don’t think these meetings accomplish that much. This is a chance – your chance, and your choice – to demonstrate otherwise. Let’s channel our energies into building that more hopeful, more humane world together.

Thank you.

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